BRIEF: Elbow Surgery Keeps Pitchers Throwing

Professional baseball pitchers who return after "Tommy John" surgery have similar career lengths and retirement reasons as other pitchers.

Pitcher Joba Chamberlain on a injury rehabilitation pitching appearance in the minor leagues in 2012.

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Chris Gorski, Editor

(Inside Science) -- Major League Baseball pitchers who have undergone elbow ligament surgery don't seem to retire because of elbow or shoulder injuries more than other pitchers.

In a paper published online last month in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, a group of researchers from multiple U.S. hospitals reported that the length of a pitcher’s career did not differ significantly based on whether he had undergone the procedure, known technically as ulnar collateral ligament repair. It is often called Tommy John surgery after its first patient, an MLB pitcher who gathered more than half of the 288 wins in his career after a pioneering 1974 operation.

The surgery replaces the damaged ligament with either a tendon from elsewhere in the patient's body or with tissue from a cadaver. It is now a fairly common procedure, and some pitchers and other players have had the surgery multiple times.

The researchers compared the careers of 153 retired major league pitchers whose elbows were repaired with a group of similar pitchers who did not have the surgery. The study found no significant difference in career length between the two groups -- about 4.4 years for both, although the standard deviation differed. They excluded pitchers who never returned to the major leagues after their surgery.

Elbow, shoulder and leg injuries were the most likely retirement reasons for all pitchers, along with declining performance. The “Tommy John” group was not more likely to retire because of a subsequent elbow injury. In fact, the significant rehabilitation process patients typically undergo can even result in their throwing faster after they return from injury. That process might explain why the surgery group was actually less likely to retire after shoulder and leg injuries than other pitchers were. Rehabilitation could generate a "protective effect against future shoulder and leg injuries, although this cannot be proven," the researchers write.

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Chris Gorski is an Editor for Inside Science and runs the Sports beat. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.